Franklin swimming and diving head coach Zach DeWitt said he believes there are several steps in the evolution of a program.

The Grizzly Cub girls have completed most of them — start winning sectionals, then qualifying swimmers for the state meet, then start scoring points there.

Last winter, Franklin was on its way to its first top-10 state finish before getting disqualified in the final of the 200-yard freestyle relay and settling for 12th.

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The Grizzly Cubs scored points in nearly every event. The next step in the evolution process, DeWitt said, is getting multiple swimmers to score regularly in those events. That’s what separates Carmel and the other elite programs who battle for second place behind the Greyhounds each year — and that’s where Franklin hopes to be this season.

“This team has the ponies to ride out a top-five season,” DeWitt said.

As the team’s performance has improved from year to year, expectations within the program have risen. Those who have been around for a while have noticed the change.

“The way we approach things now versus in the past has been way more serious,” senior Anna McCahill said.

With most of the top scorers back and a strong group of newcomers joining them, the Grizzly Cubs are more serious than ever. Junior Carla Gildersleeve, who earned top-five state finishes in the 200 freestyle and the 100 butterfly, had a strong summer and will be in pursuit of an individual state title.

Three other returning swimmers — senior Ella Pheifer and juniors Ali Terrell and Jessie Fraley — scored points at the state meet, and McCahill was a part of Franklin’s two scoring relay teams.

DeWitt knows what to expect from the likes of Gildersleeve, Pheifer and Terrell. What will make the difference in the Grizzly Cubs’ season, he said, is how much the next group of swimmers can contribute.

“If Jessie Fraley has the greatest year of her life, then this team can be unbelievable,” DeWitt said. “Somebody like (sophomore) Sarah Hoffman is paramount to our success; if she can take that next step, this team can make that next step. (Sophomore) Lina Caudill — we just need some girls to take the next step so the team can, in turn, take that next step.”

Freshmen Gracey Payne, Kabria Chapman and Lillian Lacy are expected to bolster the team’s depth and potentially give Franklin those second and third scoring options in a few events during the postseason.

Making the newcomers feel like a part of the team right away is a priority. Seniors McCahill and Pheifer say that the Grizzly Cubs don’t have a caste system based on seniority; rather, they’re encouraging all of the swimmers to hold their teammates accountable and push each other.

“We want to make sure they’re brought up to think that yeah, they can lead on this team,” Pheifer said.

Those additional leaders figure to make the strongest program in the area that much stronger. DeWitt and his girls are hoping that additional strength shows up on the IUPUI Natatorium scoreboard in February.

Scouting Johnson County's girls swimming and diving teams

Center Grove Trojans

Coach: Jim Todd

Last year: Second in county and sectional, third in conference

Key returnees: Jillian Castor and Sarah Kempf, seniors; Emma Pawlik, junior; Gracie Marsh, sophomore

Fresh face: Devin Trammell, freshman

Outlook: The Trojans have a handful of state qualifiers back from last season and the area’s top diver in reigning sectional champion Kempf, but they’re still a tier below Franklin locally and the likes of Carmel and North Central in the MIC. Todd would just like to see improvement through the year and get a few more athletes through to the state meet.

Franklin Grizzly Cubs

Coach: Zach DeWitt

Last year: Won county, conference and sectional titles; finished 12th at state meet

Key returnees: Anna McCahill and Ella Pheifer, seniors; Jessie Fraley, Carla Gildersleeve and Ali Terrell, juniors; Lina Caudill and Sarah Hoffman, sophomores

Fresh faces: Kabria Chapman, Lillian Lacy and Gracey Payne, freshmen

Outlook: The Grizzly Cubs just missed cracking the top 10 in the state last year, and with almost all of their scoring swimmers back and a strong rookie class, they’ve got their sights set on the top five. Franklin gradually has become one of Indiana’s strongest programs, and the added depth this season should firmly establish this squad among the elite.

Greenwood Woodmen

Coach: Matt Hockersmith

Last year: Fourth in conference, fifth in county and eighth in sectional

Key returnees: Samantha Loudermilk and Kenna Waldschmidt, seniors; Faith Jackson, Bridget Lindstrom and Caroline Marot, juniors; Alex Wilson, sophomore

Fresh faces: Alayna Kenworthy, Ava Leininger and Grace Nuhfer, freshmen

Outlook: The Woodmen still have a way to go before they’ll be able to contend for a county or sectional title, but with a solid returning group and a handful of freshmen with club experience, Hockersmith said he believes the team can be more competitive and at least land in the middle of the Mid-State Conference pack.

Greenwood Christian Cougars

Coach: Paul Ziegler

Last year: Finished 12th at sectional meet

Key returnee: Nicole Ziegler, junior

Fresh faces: None

Outlook: It’s a team of one at Greenwood Christian, where Nicole Ziegler is the reigning PAAC champion in both of her events (200 and 500 freestyle). She’ll be competing at the county meet for the first time, and Paul Ziegler is hoping that his daughter can perhaps make a state cut in at least one of those races.

Indian Creek Braves

Coach: Brad Smith

Last year: Fourth in county and sectional

Key returnees: Lori McCormick, senior; Sam Keymon and Lexi Wilhoit, juniors, Payton Allison and Bella Ratzlaff, sophomores

Fresh faces: Georgia Crandall, senior; Lissy Vanette, sophomore

Outlook: The Braves already had a strong veteran group led by Wilhoit, McCormick and Ratzlaff, and they’ve added enough depth around them to fill out three solid relay teams. Smith said he believes Indian Creek could make a push for its first top-three sectional finish, and he’s hopeful the team can rack up some points at the state meet.

Whiteland Warriors

Coach: Marci Whitford

Last year: Second in conference, third in county and sectional

Key returnees: Morgan Giroud, Kaitlyn James and Danielle Mekkes, juniors

Fresh faces: Alexa Brodnik, Addison Daily, Grace Fisher and Avery Herring, freshmen

Outlook: The Warriors have continued to grow each year under Whitford, who is hopeful that her team can continue to inch closer to the top of the local pecking order. A deep freshman class should help with that effort. Catching Franklin remains a long-term project, but Whiteland could make a push for second place in the county and sectional meets.

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.